WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has long railed against immigration as a scourge on the economy and national security. He’s committed his administration to starting construction on a wall along the Mexican border to stop illegal immigration and asylum seekers, yet he reversed his past policy efforts on restricting legal immigration in this year’s State of the Union address.
Trump managed to accuse immigrants in the country illegally of stealing jobs from American workers, while declaring that the country needs more immigrants because of its economic boom. This argument rested on a series of false stereotypes.
“I want people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally,” he declared, only to say later, “Working-class Americans are left to pay the price for mass illegal immigration: reduced jobs, lower wages, overburdened schools, hospitals that are so crowded you can’t get in, increased crime, and a depleted social safety net.”
That’s a slight variation on his drumbeat going back to 2015, when he declared: “They’re taking our jobs, they’re taking our manufacturing jobs, they’re taking our money, they’re killing us.”
The fact is that 75 percent of immigrants arrived legally, according to the Pew Research Center. In general, the entire immigrant population is increasingly better educated than native-born Americans.
They’re more likely to have jobs. They’re less likely to commit violent crimes. They help fuel economic growth. And as a group over time, they’re no more a drain on taxpayers than native-born citizens.
Moreover, for all the attention to the southern border, in recent years immigrants to the U.S. have been more likely to come from Asia than from Mexico.
Three Harvard University economists released a paper in June that looked at immigration in multiple countries and concluded that native-born Americans as a whole wildly overestimate the prevalence of immigrants. These Americans estimated, on average, that legal immigrants made up 36 percent of the U.S. population, more than triple their actual share. They thought that immigrants were less likely to work and more dependent on government aid than immigrants actually are — and these stereotypes made them less supportive of social programs that might aid immigrants.
“We were surprised by how much of a misperception there was about the level of education, income and contribution to society that immigrants give,” said Alberto Alesini, a Harvard economist who co-wrote the paper.
Here are some fundamental myths about U.S. immigration and the economy:
MYTH: VAST NUMBERS OF IMMIGRANTS ARE POURING ACROSS U.S. BORDERS
REALITY: Not really.
The net flow of all migration into the United States in recent years — around 0.3 percent of the total population — is roughly at a long-standing historical average, according to an analysis of government data by Lyman Stone, an economist who studies demographic issues.
“It isn’t rock-bottom, but it isn’t that high either,” Stone said.
Economists say that restricting immigration would probably weaken economic growth. Given today’s lower birth rates in the United States, immigrants are increasingly needed to sustain a level of population growth for the U.S. economy to keep expanding.
Immigrants as a whole do make up a greater percentage of the total U.S. population than they did back in 1970, having grown from less than 5 percent of the population to more than 13 percent now.
But there’s a largely overlooked reason for that: Native-born Americans are having fewer children. The falling birth rate means that immigrants now make up a greater share of the population. In 2030, it’s projected that immigrants will become the primary driver for U.S. population growth, overtaking U.S. births.
MYTH: IMMIGRANTS ARE TAKING AWAY JOBS
REALITY: Many people have firsthand stories of losing a construction bid or an office job to a foreign worker. This happens in an economy as large and diverse as the United States’, where numerous people also lose jobs to native-born Americans.
But employment data suggest that the influx of immigrants helps increase overall hiring for the U.S. economy rather than erode job growth. The trend is clear in the government’s monthly jobs report. The data doesn’t distinguish between immigrants who are in the U.S. legally and illegally.
Nearly 64 percent of immigrants hold jobs, compared with roughly 60 percent of workers born in the United States, according to the Labor Department. Last year, immigrants accounted for roughly 40 percent of the 2.4 million jobs added.
Because a steady growth in the workforce helps the economy expand, economists say fewer immigrants would equal slower growth and fewer jobs. Falling birth rates and the retirement of the vast generation of baby boomers mean fewer people will flow into the workforce in the coming years — a drag on economic growth, which will, in turn, probably limit hiring.
Many economists have noted that adding immigrants would help maintain the flow of workers into the economy and support growth.
MYTH: IMMIGRANTS ARE UNEDUCATED
REALITY: The president has pledged to create an immigration system based on “merit,” thereby implying that the United States is a destination mainly of unskilled and uneducated workers.
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” Trump said at his 2015 campaign kickoff.
But today’s immigrants are more likely to be better educated than Americans. And the country has increasingly become a magnet for foreigners with doctorates and master’s degrees. Sixteen percent of all immigrants who arrived since 2000 hold an advanced degree, compared with 13 percent of the native-born population, according to the Census Bureau.
As of 2017, immigrants who have become citizens are almost twice as likely to hold a doctorate than are native-born U.S. citizens. Foreign-born citizens were more likely to have a doctorate at least as far back as 2000.
And Census records also show that the children of immigrants are more likely to graduate from college than are those of native-born parentage.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that all immigrants are better educated. Such are the disparities within the immigrant population that immigrants as a whole are less likely than native-born Americans to have completed high school. But the trend shows that the United States is increasingly a home for foreigners with graduate degrees and higher earnings.
MYTH: IMMIGRANTS ARE TO BLAME FOR TODAY’S SLUGGISH WAGE GROWTH
REALITY: The weight of the research suggests that immigrants have not suppressed wages.
David Card, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley, first studied the issue in 1990 by reviewing the arrival of Cuban migrants in Miami during the 1980 “Mariel boat lift.” This historical rush of immigrants created a natural experiment to measure what then happened to incomes in the local area. He concluded: “The influx appears to have had virtually no effect on the wages or unemployment rates of less-skilled workers.”
Giovanni Peri, an economist at the University of California at Davis, studied immigration into California between 1960 and 2005. He wrote in a 2010 paper that it had “essentially” no effect on wages or employment of native-born workers.
But many people seeking to reduce immigration rely on research from George Borjas, a Harvard economist. His research found that the arrival of Cubans in the Mariel boat lift caused wages to fall for native-born high school dropouts in Miami. Other economists have questioned his methodology.
In addition, Borjas’ findings would apply to a small fraction of U.S. jobholders today, only about 6.2 percent of whom lack a high school degree.
Other explanations for sluggish wage growth go beyond immigration. They include the decline in unionization, an intensified push to maximize corporate profits, growing health insurance costs that supplant wages and the rise of a lower-wage global labor force that in an intertwined worldwide economy can hinder pay growth for Americans.
MYTH: IMMIGRANTS ARE A DRAIN ON TAXPAYERS
REALITY: The National Academy of Sciences explored the costs to taxpayers in 2016. It’s a tricky issue. The federal government runs a budget deficit, which means it spends more than it collects in taxes. This means that, on average, most Americans are a net drain on taxpayers.
All told, the costs imposed by immigrants are about the same as they are for native-born citizens.
“An immigrant and a native-born person with similar characteristics will likely have the same fiscal impact,” the report said.
But the report also examined spending by states and localities, which generally must maintain balanced budgets. Because state and local governments supply most of the money for public schools, immigrants often receive more in benefits than they pay in taxes.
That said, there are longer-term benefits from educating children, who grow into adults who get jobs, buy cars, buy houses and pay taxes and thereby contribute to economic growth. The National Academy found that the net cost from 2011 to 2013 for state and local budgets combined averaged $1,600 a year for a first-generation immigrant. But that figure became a net positive of $1,700 for the second generation and $1,300 for the third.
Immigrant households with children are generally more likely to use welfare programs like food assistance and Medicaid than native-born households, largely because the immigrant families have lower average incomes and larger families, according to the National Academy report.
MYTH: ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION LEADS TO VIOLENT CRIME
REALITY: Trump frequently highlights violence by the “savage” MS-13 gang, saying in his speech Tuesday that it operates in at least 20 states and “they almost all come through our southern border.”
He invokes that gang, whose members come predominantly from El Salvador or are U.S. citizens descended from there, to portray immigrants as criminals. Widespread crime makes it harder, of course, to run a business, spend money and engage in the daily transactions that keep an economy humming.
But there is scant evidence that immigrants are perpetuating a crime wave. In a paper published last year, sociologists Michael Light and Ty Miller reviewed crime in every state and the District of Columbia from 1990 to 2014. They found that a rising number of immigrants in the country illegally corresponded with a drop, not a rise, in reported crime.
The authors acknowledged that it’s possible that people who came illegally are less likely to report a crime. But the authors also note that such immigrants overwhelmingly arrived to work, a trend that helps to reduce crime levels. Past research cited in their paper found that 93 percent of the men in the country illegally either have a job or are looking for one.
“At a minimum, the results of our study call into question claims that undocumented immigration increases violent crime,” their paper concluded. “If anything, the data suggest the opposite.”
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